Ingredients for an Innovative Culture

Where do good, new ideas come from? And how do we create a culture of innovation in an organization, big or small?

The clearest frame for my answer still comes, five years after I first read it, from Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, which still stands as the clearest articulation I’ve seen to this important question.

The book’s core assertion is that new ideas and breakthrough insights come at the frontier of the adjacent possibile via reassembly and reconfiguration of existing ideas at the edge of what you know: the printing press doesn’t get invented in 1493 without the pre-existence, and reassembly, of movable type, paper-making, and ink (all invented in China from the years 105 A.D. to 1041), together with the existence of woodcut printing presses and paper mills that proliferated in the 14th Century.

The implication is that in order to be a person who creates new ideas, you have to find a way to live and work at boundaries and points of intersection. This allows you to see a lot of different things and positions you to pull together seemingly disparate thoughts, technologies and ideas in new and different ways.

This is why Lin-Manuel Miranda is the only person who could have created the hit musical Hamilton: he not only inhabits the rarely-intersecting worlds of modern musical theater, hip-hop, and urban Latino culture.  He also was the kind of person who’d choose to lug the dry, slow-paced, 900+ page Ron Chernow Hamilton biography on his Caribbean vacation, would start reading it on that vacation, and then, most shockingly, at the end of the first few chapters would think, “I know! I’m going to turn this into a hip-hop album/musical about this unsung immigrant founding father!”

And yet, even if Lin-Manuel can uniquely have this sort of insight, the musical doesn’t happen with him alone. What then needs to happen is for this idea to germinate within a team. Lin pulls in folks like “orchestrator, arranger, musical director, conductor and keyboard player” Alex Lacamoire, and together they prod and reshape each idea, they push boundaries and whittle down the unnecessary bits until, ultimately, what results is a masterpiece.

This is the part of the story that is most relevant and accessible to each of us every day: not just the stroke of insight on the hammock under the sun, but the culture that we can create to support and nurtures good ideas each and every day.

I don’t have a perfect answer to how to create this sort of culture, but, having had the chance to work across a lot of teams in many organizations, I have observed some of the ingredients that are supportive of a culture of innovation, and others that are guaranteed to spoil the broth.

So, without further ado…

The Innovation Ingredient List

(aka how do teams that regularly create and develop new ideas behave?)

Diverse voices.  Everyone on the team regularly speaks up and shares their thoughts in various ways (in person and virtually).

Idea sources are plentiful and diverse. News articles, blogs, thoughts exchanged over dinner, a great conversation that someone writes up and shares with others… In every innovative team I’ve been a part of, while the form and flavor of sharing ideas differs, there’s always a culture of “hey, I just came across this! I think it will be helpful to us. What do you think?”

Get out of the building. Because of the “adjacent” in “adjacent possible,” for innovation and creativity to flourish, ideas need to come from all over the place. Customers, partners, an art installation, a sign on the subway…it doesn’t matter where, it just needs to be broad.

Thought partners. Multiple groupings of folks converse to make each other’s ideas better. This can be in-person, in writing, on a walk, a eureka moment in the middle of the night. The “how” doesn’t matter, but the passing of ideas back and forth does. There’s a sense of ongoing discussion of exploration and curiosity.

It’s personal. The team feels and acts as if the work they are doing is theirs. It reflects who they are. They are on the hook when things go right and wrong.

Ideas flow.  When a new idea enters the flow, it keeps moving. Folks jump in, add to or take away. The pace of all of this is quick. And, like a shark, the conversation around the idea keeps moving quickly to stay alive.

Yes, and… Like in improv, all ideas, even ones that at first blush don’t make much sense, get a “yes, and” response with an eye towards building on them, not tearing them down.

Zoom in, zoom out. At least some of the people around the table are good at digging into the details, and then stepping back to see the whole and putting this whole into focus. This is the bridging work between broad exploration and crystalizing around a few ideas that rise to the top. It literally feels like a camera lens that turns so that everyone involved can say, “Ah, now I see it!” This is a really important ingredient because it allows for lots of idea generation, and some churn, to happen without letting the group get lost or stuck for too long.

It’s Ok to launch, it’s OK to kill. This is a tough one to get right, but too much or too little of either creates either a culture of perfectionism or people getting spread too thin.

You have criteria for success. Related to the above…because you can only kill things if there are criteria in place to judge if they are working.

Solution dissatisfaction. While there’s openness and positivity, there’s also a need not to be easily satisfied with solutions that seem pretty good.  Some of this solution dissatisfaction comes from experience and pattern recognition, which together lead to an informed intuition that says, “we can do better than this, even though this is pretty good.”

 

Ingredients to avoid (aka things that spoil the broth)

If the above list looks unfamiliar, or hard to pull off right away, one way to approach change is to identify what is gumming up the works, things that you and some brave allies can work to change.

A culture of fear. Usually this is a fear of being wrong, fear of speaking up, fear of contradicting the most important person in the room.

A culture of recrimination. This goes hand-in-hand with a culture of fear. The thing people fear is being punished. There’s usually a bit of shame thrown in.

Things that feel static. This is the opposite of the ‘flow of ideas’ described above: if people throw ideas into the pot (in a meeting, in writing) and all that comes back is silence, or if the pace of dialogue gets too slow, eventually folks will stop sharing their best ideas.

Never pulling the plug on things.  If it’s impossible to stop things, at some point the (lifetime) cost of starting something is too high. Worse, if keeping all of today’s plates spinning is spreading everyone too thin, there’s no space for figuring out how to make things better.

Waiting for / blaming the “people in charge.” This can either take the form of waiting for someone else to tell everyone what to do (to be the source of insight, to walk out on the limb…“we’d do great work if only…”), or of knowing that someone else will criticize, fail to approve or otherwise undermine good work that is created by anyone else. This is the opposite of a culture of ownership.

Criticizing people, not ideas. In teams with a culture of fear, the criticisms are always a little (or a lot) personal. In these cultures, when an idea isn’t a good one, the thing that gets beat up is the person who had it. The two mistakes to avoid are: 1. Communicating “you are stupid” instead of “this idea needs work;” and, as problematic, 2. Hearing any critique of an idea as a personal affront.  This is a very hard balance to get right. The book Creativity, Inc, which describes how movies are developed at Pixar, is a great case study of how to design an organizational culture whose sole purpose is to produce the best ideas by structuring interactions in ways that foster diverse and generative input. One of the bits I like the best is that while script input comes from lots of people, including Pixar’s “stars,” what to do with that input (what to take on and what to ignore) is up to the author: there are no mandatory changes.

Thick skins. This is related to the above. A senior guy I know in the U.S. Army talks about how, before any After Action Review, the Army’s post-engagement process of reviewing what went right and wrong in an engagement, you have to “put on your thick skin.” It is because your best work is personal that it is so hard to be told that something you worked so hard to create could be better. But it’s important.

No, but. Most new ideas are met with some sort of negative language. Listen for the actual words, and if positive (“yes,” “and,” “also”) or negative (“no,” “but,” “maybe,” “however”) language is used more often.

I don’t care what was said, I care who said it. This is an easy one: if the validity of an idea is predominantly the result of who said it, you’re sunk.

To wrap it all up, I’ll defer to John Clease’s wonderful lecture on creativity, in which he describes the qualities of mind that lead to creativity and breakthrough: it’s a playful mind, a mind that explores, a mind that is comfortable with the discomfort of an unresolved question.

The hare brain loves clarity; it wants everything to be expressed in a very simple, straightforward clear way. Tortoise mind doesn’t expect clarity; it doesn’t know where the illumination is going to come from. The language of the unconscious is images. That also means a lot of times when you’re being very creative you can feel very confused. You don’t know where you are or where you’re going. And you can tolerate that and continue to defer the decision. Because you’re taking your time in tortoise mind, if you have a question, you’re much more likely to get interested in the question.


Impresario fundraising

It’s very easy for fundraisers to forget that they have a superpower.

The best fundraisers are network hubs, people who build strong relationships and who make change happen by connected trusted people to meaningful opportunities to do good in the world.

And yet many fundraisers feel stuck. Stuck in a role that they might like (or that they are good at) but that feels too narrow. Stuck in a career path that doesn’t obviously lead to the top. Stuck hearing an unspoken story that the people who “really” do the work are someone other than them.

Here’s a playbook to get unstuck.

Recognize that the relationship currency you have invested in and built is an underutilized asset.

See that the funders you know and trust – and who know and trust you – nearly always feel like there’s more they could be doing in addition giving money.

Also see that there’s an important new set of things your organization could be doing if it had the right kind of capital to make that happen.

And realize, most importantly, that the story that’s been handed to you about what your organization is, and the boundaries around what it does and does not do in the world, is just that: a story.

Your opportunity is to reconfigure these resources in a new way. And it is YOUR opportunity because the hardest-to-acquire and most important pieces of this puzzle are the trust and relationship currency you and only you have with funders.

This is a trust that you can translate into a conversation that pulls together all of these pieces in new ways: trust that will get 10 funders into a room for a real brainstorming conversation; trust that gives you license to talk to folks internally about what they could do if they had new, different, more ambitious funders; trust that allows you to dream of new products that people could invest in, new structures that would allow you to take on more risk, new stories that could make sense of what your organization is and does, and new relationships that could actually change all of those things for the better.

Great new things happen because an existing set of relationships and ideas are brought together in new ways; because we discard old stories (of self, of our organizations, of how these pieces fit together) and dare to write new ones together.

The fundraising impresario is the person who picks herself, who sees the unique role she can play in painting a new picture of what is possible, and who takes the first steps to reassemble the puzzle pieces. She is a person who is willing to go out on a limb to host and curate the conversations that make crazy, new, important things happen. And she is the person who discovers, the moment she gets out on that limb, all the people who thank her and say, “finally, here’s something we can all get excited about!”

No Rush

It’s summertime. If you’re not on vacation, then you’re probably making space for some bigger, longer-term projects.

Inevitably, our work time is split into two broad categories: the busy things we need to get through efficiently, and the labor that requires our thoughtful, soulful engagement.

We routinely struggle to create the right balance between the two, which is an important fight.

We also cannot forget that the qualities that serve us well in one area serve us poorly in the other. It’s great to be focused, urgent, and keeping an eye on the clock when tearing through our inbox. But striving to be driven, focused and efficient when we are engaging in bigger questions and in harder topics that don’t yield to quick and easy answers is, with due credit to Indiana Jones, like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

There’s no “hurrying up” when we’re working through big, complex problems.

Make the time, take the time, and don’t rush it.

(Hamilton-inspired) Time for Synthesis

I recently became obsessed by the music from the Broadway musical Hamilton (I know, I’m not alone).

I haven’t seen the show yet, but I’m going to next month so I’ve been reading up on it – so far, mostly articles and reviews, not the huge Ron Chernow Hamilton biography, which is next on my list.

In the New Yorker profile of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius songwriter/actor/rapper who wrote the script and music for Hamilton, I came across this excerpt about his process:

Miranda writes many of his lyrics while in motion: walking around Fort Tryon Park, which is near his apartment, or riding the subway downtown from 181st Street…

‘I will write eight or sixteen bars of music I think is exciting, or interesting, or sounds like the pulse of the character I want to be speaking, and then I will go put on my headphones and walk my dog and talk to myself,’ he says.

Sometimes when he is working on a riff he sings into the voice-memo function on one device while listening to the loop on another. The refrain of Aaron Burr’s signature song, ‘Wait for It,’ came to him fully formed one evening on the subway. “I was going to a friend’s birthday party in Dumbo,’ he says. ‘I sang the melody into the iPhone, then I went to the guy’s party for fifteen minutes, and wrote the rest of the song on the train back home.’”

I get a fair number of questions about how to “be innovative,” and mostly I don’t know how to answer them. But I do think it’s pretty clear that, most of the time, creativity and new ideas don’t spring forth when we sit at our desk, clicking between Outlook and Word (never mind Facebook).

In my experience, my own unanswered questions from an intense period of work will churn in the background until a moment of insight comes unexpectedly, even inconveniently, often when I’m on a run or doing something else that’s seemingly not work-related.

While I usually feel foolish stopping a run to tap out something on my iPhone, wondering if I’m missing the point entirely of going for the run, I do increasingly try to capture the thoughts that spring up in these moments by sending myself a quick email as I wipe the sweat out of my eyes, or recording a breathless voice memo if it’s a longer or more complex thought.

One of the risks of day after day of tasks, meetings, to do lists and email is that we need extra space to go from grappling with big, challenging questions to answering them. Equally important is to remember to put down our phones, in the elevator or when walking down the street, to give our brains some down time to process our own thoughts.

We’re all different, but I think it’s important to reflect on when our insights come and to make more space in our weeks for these insights to bubble up.

For me, I typically have insights in one of four types of moments: conversation with a colleague, on runs (but not other kinds of exercise), when I sit down to blog, and when I set aside larger blocks of time to think through a problem (including reading relevant articles on a given topic). Since I have stretches when I fail to set aside those larger blocks of time, I’m working to make sure I always have space for the other three, and that I experiment with using other “found” moments of time (like, say, on the subway) to generate spontaneous moments of synthesis and reflection.

Probably the easiest shift to make is to recognize that little gaps of time – a short walk on the way to work or to lunch, an elevator ride, when we walk the dog or even prepare dinner – aren’t wasted time to be filled with yet another distraction. These are precious moments to let our unconscious mind come up with the answers that our conscious mind can’t quite produce.

New isn’t all new

It’s so easy to be held back by “it’s not new enough.”

As in:

I can’t write this blog post (or this book), someone else has already said this.

I can’t claim that this idea is important, because someone else was doing something that looked a little bit like this before I was.

I can’t share my excitement about how we are tackling this problem, because parts of our approach have been tried before.

“New” doesn’t mean brand new, completely new, all new. That’s not how it works. What makes something new isn’t a set of component parts that has never been seen before. It’s the way you put those parts together in new ways, or the way you apply those parts in new domains.

By way of example, Gutenberg’s printing press, “invented” in 1439, was, technically, nothing new. Movable type had existed in China since 1051. Ink and paper-making had existed for thousands of years. Paper mills became common in Europe in the 1300s as did woodcut printing presses.

But no one had put them together in just the way Gutenberg did, and when he assembled and spread his unique combination of existing parts, he revolutionized the spread of ideas in the Western world and began the democratization of information that is still happening today.

(also: how Star Wars is practically a paint-by-numbers manifestation of the 19 steps of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, on purpose)

Don’t let your fear of “this isn’t all new” keep you from creating new things or from sharing what you feel is important about the new work that you’re doing. And don’t let the voices – both inside and outside your head – of “this has been done before” keep you from doing that next important thing or from sharing what is groundbreaking about the work you are doing.

“New” – here, now, for this thing, in this way – is new enough.

And “new,” ultimately, is about how we understand and frame a problem, and how we think about the ways we can go about solving it. If your “new” changes that, then it’s changed everything.

 

(for more along these lines, I highly recommend Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson)

Things we’ve done before

The things we’ve done before get less scrutiny. We did them last year (or last quarter, or last month) so when the time comes to do them again, we turn the crank and start.

New things, on the other hand, get all the tough questions.  Why?

Did we know more last year about what needed to happen today than we know today? Probably not.

Rather, the things we’ve done before, collectively, add up to our sense of who we are. Organizationally, we are the sum the things we do – our programs, our initiatives, our product lines – and cutting one of those away creates a sense of loss.

Worse, that loss may arrive special delivery from the outside.  Those close to you – customers, donors, friends – are quick to say, “I miss that thing we used to do.”  But they’ll never bang on your door with nostalgia for the thing you’ve never done.

If you’re in the “creating new things” business, your job is to understand how much the people around you resist white space and how much loss will be experienced by letting go of something familiar. Then your job is to work through these tough, personal conversations, not to pretend they don’t have to happen.

Remember, old versus new isn’t a fair fight based on the merits what makes the most sense today.

5 tough questions

Today is the second annual NextGen:Charity conference.  To commemorate the conference, Ari Teman, co-founder of the conference along with Jonah Halper, asked me to respond to five questions about innovation in the developing world, leadership, faith, blogging, and failure.  Here’s the interview (the link to yesterday’s Huffington Post article is here).

1. There’s a lot of talk about sharing our innovations with the 3rd world — let’s flip that around. What are some of the lessons the “developed world” can learn from the innovators you support (who have to operate on pennies a day)?

Extreme frugality, a relentless focus on customers, the ability to navigate complexity and take nothing for granted. In 2003, Acumen Fund connected with the visionary entrepreneur Amitabha Sadangi who realized that he could reverse-engineer drip irrigation systems originally developed in Israel and make them infinitely scalable and radically affordable to poor customers in India. Amitabha knew that poor farmers would need to see an extreme value proposition – the ability to test the system on 1/8th acre plots and to see payback in less than a year – and that even so the road would be long and hard to change farming practices. Eight years later, Global Easy Water Products has served more than 300,000 farmers, and Amitabha has a lot to teach entrepreneurs globally about creating the minimal viable product to meet the needs of customers for whom value per dollar is paramount and the willingness to take risk is limited. He’s also about the most persistent man you’ll ever meet.

2. The Acumen Fund has a prestigious Fellowship Program where you develop young talent and you also work with some amazing visionaries — what do you see as the key traits of a successful leader?

We expect the Acumen Fund Fellows to possess a unique combination of traits – operational excellence, financial acumen, and what we call moral imagination, the ability to see yourself in another, to walk a mile in her shoes. Each year we select 10 Fellows from a global pool of 700 applicants from 60 countries, and the Fellows are an amazing group from all walks of life. We’ve had people like Jocelyn Wyatt, who has created IDEO.org to bring design thinking and user-centered design to address problems of poverty; Jawad Aslam, who is now pioneering low-income housing for the poor in Pakistan through his company, AMC; or Suraj Sudhakar who, in addition to his day job, has thrown 40 TEDx’s across the slums of Nairobi. In addition to the incredible combination of skills these Fellows bring to the table, what differentiates them is a deep and abiding commitment to seeing the poor not as passive recipients of charity but individuals with hopes, aspiration, and dignity.


3. On your blog you frequently muse on various faiths’ approaches to giving. How does faith inform your leadership and charity work?

When I started blogging I thought I was going to write about philanthropy and social enterprise, but as I continued my exploration I kept on getting to more fundamental questions of service and giving. While I’m a huge believer in the need for innovation to solve some of the world’s toughest problems, there’s also a deep wisdom that all of the faiths have to offer – we just need to be willing to open up our ears and hearts to what they have to teach. Sometimes I worry that we might get too smart in how we approach solving problems and lose our rooting in this centuries-old wisdom. The notion that giving is part of the circle of life is central to all religions and cultures – it connects us to one another, strengthens community, and is an acknowledgment that if we are in a position to give, then we have ourselves been given a great gift.


4. You mentioned you blogged publicly about your Generosity Experiment to encourage yourself to follow-through. How else do you keep yourself motivated?

It’s incredibly easy to stay motivated when you feel like you’re making a difference – it’s when you’re trying to make a difference and failing that your energy drains away. I think we all crave a better world and the moment you get a taste of helping create that, you can never let it go. I sometimes joke that I never knew what I was getting in to when I started blogging, and it’s just as well – it helps to be a little naïve because if you’re not you’ll never jump in. Whether through the crazy, unexpected success of Generosity Day 2011 or when I watch one of the Acumen Fund investees reach its millionth customer served with a product that really improves people’s lives, I know I’m doing the right thing and that I need to keep working harder and smarter.

5. And the question we ask everyone: What’s your most spectacular failure?

Some of the big failures come from fear – like times when I didn’t have the courage to look someone in the eye and ask them to make a big funding commitment for fear they would say no. Really, though, I’m not sure how I feel about putting “spectacular” and “failure” together. The big, real big failures often aren’t the go-down-in-a-blaze-of-glory variety, they are when you wrong someone, disrespect someone, make someone feel small rather than raise them up – and just as often these are sins of omission rather than commission. Those are the ones that sting.

I promise if you blog daily you are going to fail often.  You have to decide in advance that you’re ready to fail – if anything it’s the commitment to being open to failure that frees you to ship, to push your ideas to the edge, to dream big. And that all sounds great but that doesn’t mean you won’t write posts that don’t hit the mark, because you will.

This idea that failure is rare is what really holds us back. We are perfect so rarely, and if we stick to our guns the rest of the time, we will learn so much less and share so much less than we have to offer.